A Cheerful Gang Turns the Earth Review
Another in a long line of movies based on best selling novels, A Cheerful Gang Turns the Earth springs forth from the mystery writings of award winner Isaka Kotaro, with an adapted screenplay from GTO: The Movie’s Takashi Hasegawa and Kentaro Ushio. Tetsu Maeda, who took off around 1996 as a casting director, notably for Shall We Dance helms his biggest commercial hit to date, having also worked as an A.D. for the likes of Juzo Itami and having dabbled in a couple of well received pieces, including the V-Cinema Swing Man from 2000, in addition to a number of television projects.
Kyono (Koichi Sato), Yukiko (Kyoka Suzuki), Naruse (Takao Osawa) and Kuon (Shota Matsuda) were complete strangers until one day, when a bank clerk attempted to rob his own bank with them in presence. It should have been simple enough for the man, but these four individuals weren’t just average Joes, they had talent and enough of it to see through his plan. Together they foiled his attempt to scarper with the cash: Kyono with his sooth talking, Yukiko and her biological clock, Naruse with his ability to detect lies and Kuon with his pick-pocketing skills. It soon dawned on Kyono that there’s no romanticism in crime these days, but that it was something to be easily remedied. Soon enough they form a gang and take to robbing banks all over Tokyo; each one a perfect crime, with the police and media left scratching their heads. But their latest robbery has gone sour. After escaping with the loot they’re jumped by a masked gang who steal the money and disappear. Obviously someone had to know what they were up to. Could it be someone within their own ranks? Now they’re placed in a tricky situation: should they disband or carry out one last robbery attempt? The latter is tempting to say the least, but if they’re going to do it then they’ll have to tread carefully if they want to succeed and hopefully unmask whoever set them up.
A Cheerful Gang… is quite refreshing in that it’s fairly concise, without feeling the need to mess around with convoluted plot strands to any large degree. It’s certainly familiar in that it’s built up of a layered storyline; it doesn’t follow a conventional narrative flow, being disjointed and ultimately connecting like a puzzle. It’s all done quite convincingly and it’s entertaining, even if this trend in film making is becoming somewhat overused these days. And as complicated as that may sound it really is a simple tale. The primary goal is to entertain in more of a sensory assaulting fashion: from the opening scene and the following psychedelic credit sequence we know that we’re entering a film that’s as cheery as its name implies. It’s not just a case of Maeda’s Japanese hit being colourful, it’s simply comic book insane, from the fantastically extravagant wardrobe of anime and seventies kitsch inspirations, to the totally elaborate and mad-cap CG in which cars rally around doing the impossible. And Maeda doesn’t attempt to hide the obvious. The computer imagery, of which there is plenty is used much in the same way as Stephen Chow incorporated it into Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle; we’re always aware of it, but it works within the confines of something that’s being deliberately fantastical. Perhaps several of these visual and equally quirky dialogue exchanges can be attributed to Takashi Hasegawa, who had worked on anime series in the past, primarily as a quality checker before he got involved with the GTO live-action movie. It’s clearly rooted in pop-culture and has that aesthetic value which immediately entices a wider audience with all its artistic flourishes. Even the décor is suitably complementary toward these character’s personalities, which does more than enough to take us out of any super-realistic trappings it might otherwise have had. So too does Go “Fisher” Sato’s vibrant score echo the film’s energetic approach with its mixture of light jazz and funky percussion, in addition to some great tracks from Skoop on Somebody with guest star Akiko Wada, including the very funny and hopelessly catchy “Everything Will Be Alright”. It’s as visually and aurally romantic as it is incredibly silly, and the entire cast knows it.
As such we have a fun and lively ensemble, featuring a great cast who mostly play against type and just roll with the gags. Thanks to these players Maeda’s approach is enlivened to no end, showing us that solid performances and a willingness to go along for the ride can overcome many an obstacle; after all this isn't an entirely original premise. Koichi Sato, who we also saw in this year’s marvellous Uchouten Hotel does a complete U-Turn by playing a middle-aged philosopher with a gift for rambling who runs a small business going by the name of “Coffee Shop Romanticism”. He sees beauty in the execution of a solid plan, harbouring a weird sense of scruples as if to say that robbing a bank is only a crime if it’s done without panache. But it’s thrilling to see him at work here and embrace his gift for comedy, which sure enough reaches wonderful heights in one or two stand out scenes. He’s arguably the driving force behind the gang, with the other members being somewhat laid back and less responsive, which only does wonders in raising some fine contrasts between each of them. Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World’s Takao Osawa doesn’t change here through leaps and bounds, playing the straight man of the piece who has a gift for detecting lies, not to mention having one of the biggest written roles, alongside co-star Kyoka Suzuki - the unorthodox driving instructor - who gets to look fabulous throughout while she tries to juggle raising a child and carrying out robberies. For trivia enthusiasts the film also introduces Shota Matsuda, son of the late Yusaku who lit up the screen in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain. But Matsuda isn’t given a great deal to do, although he does prove to be a significant player during the final act. With the four of them together the screen lights up and we believe in them thanks to some solid chemistry.
Still, that doesn’t stop the film from losing a little momentum during the second act. With Kyono’s motto being “Where’s the romanticism?” we can expect to see some form of extension to fit his idealism. Indeed A Cheerful Gang… doesn’t strictly relegate the heists themselves as being the main focal point, rather it directs a lot of its attention toward the romantic subplot involving Naruse and Yukiko, because quite frankly the romanticism has always been right under the gang’s very nose. For all intents Maeda’s film might very well be a romantic comedy with action set pieces thrown around it. The director spends a lot of time in developing these two primary characters for a large portion of the film’s ninety minute run time, firmly establishing that these two souls are madly in love with one another but are too afraid to admit it, while those around them see it a mile off and voice their frustrations in private. As an ensemble piece, then, it falters ever so slightly when Kyono and Kuon are pushed aside to partake in another narrative twist, while the aforementioned protagonists work up the courage to take their relationship to another level. Still there are the required moments when we’re given slight back stories to each player, which is satisfactory, but I’m not sure if it is entirely necessary for a film such as this, being that we’re meant to be joining them for the ride and worrying less about their history. I might add that overall it’s played well enough and it never reeks of melodrama during the obvious transitions, in fact there’s rarely a moment when our emotional buttons are pressed, which is to say that it’s also quite underplayed in specific areas. As is the case it merely provides opportunities for characters to naturally tie in with the many plot turns, but it also highlights that when the gang is separated it’s not as much fun watching events unfold. However, the film rapidly picks up toward the end and although it never quite reaches the dizzying heights of the opening act it’s nicely delivered, making it a worthwhile addition to the comedy heist roster. Oh and be on the look out for some pleasant cameo appearances from some very familiar faces.
We’ve kindly been sent the Japanese premium edition, which I believe is the only version currently available. The first pressing is however strictly limited, with the bonus second disc being available for a short time. The overall packaging is very attractive: the two discs come in a standard double tray amaray case which is then housed in a card slip cover that has shiny metallic sheen that gives off a glaring rainbow effect. Also included is a leaflet entirely in Japanese which contains and introduction, production notes, plot synopsis and a special features breakdown.
What can I say? Another stunning transfer from Geneon, this is quite superb throughout, being mastered from a HD24p source, from which digital cleanliness really does it justice. Blacks and contrasts seem fine and as for the rest of the palette it simply explodes with Crayola goodness. There are a lot of notable primary colours, especially red which is dominant throughout. The transfer handles everything brilliantly; there’s no sign of bleeding anywhere. Flesh tones are great and the overall print is pristine, with no artefacting or scratches and just the occasional speck (no fault of the disc authoring). I believe that there’s a hint of high-frequency edge enhancement, but it’s so slight you really won’t find it a problem. An almost perfect transfer which truly brings the film alive and captures its cheerful essence. Anamorphic 2.35:1.
Audio options consist of Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Opting for the latter I can say that A Cheerful Gang sounds every bit as good as it looks. This is a top notch track, although I’m not sure on how to check its bit rate. Anyway I can’t find much in the way of problems; dialogue is totally fine, with solid clarity and there are some nice ambient touches littered throughout. The rears do a great job in aiding the action scenes, which mostly consist of loopy car chases, with a strong sense of separation throughout. The score also comes across as being particularly punchy and I enjoyed it when a particular song broke out amidst the action. There’s some equally solid bass support which just about gives the latter option the one up on its DD counterpart.
Optional English subtitles are included and they’re well presented. There are no major grammatical errors and the only thing that might put of some is the yellow font, but there’s not a great deal you can do about that. I didn’t find it distracting, so I’m sure many will get along with it fine.
Disc one contains a few goodies, all of which lack English subtitles. First up in the Extras section is a nine minute piece which presents the two main heist scenes in which Kyono goes off on a philosophical rant. Due the way that the scenes play out we never get to hear his entire speech, so here it is played back, but with a complete transcript scrolling underneath. We also get a similar one for the final scene in the film. Next we have a trailers section which contains some theatrical trailers and a selection of TV Spots. Finally we have cast and crew profiles.
Disc two includes the usual goodies. First up there’s a fifty minute feature which is divided into ten chapters. Plenty of behind the scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew members accompany this making of piece, which cordially covers various insights into production. A good five chapters focus on individual characters, with plenty of discussion and others get a little more technical, with green screen and on-location shoots. While I can’t say just how insightful it all is, only getting the odd gist here and there, it certainly shows everyone enjoying themselves and isn’t too bad an addition. Visual Effects are next and this feature runs for eleven minutes. Featuring interviews with the VFX crew it takes us through the obvious CG elements and shows us how they were achieved; naturally there are storyboards, animatics and green screen work to view. Perhaps the most accessible feature for those importing is the storyboard section, which is comprised of six chapters. These are particular scenes taken from the film, with completed sound and dialogue, which then have storyboards inserted in places to show us how they’re intended to work. Cast and Crew Interviews follow on from here. These were recorded in 2005 and the piece as a whole runs for fifty five minutes. The four main actors naturally make up the bulk of the feature, while director Tetsu Maeda and author Isaka Kotaro share some time also. The final feature on the disc runs for forty minutes and comprises of a couple of press conferences and the film’s attendance with director and cast at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.
Extras are being scored on content and what I feel appear to be worthy additions to the set.
A Cheerful Gang Turns the Earth doesn’t offer a great deal in the way of originality and it all too easily strays into a romantic subplot which perhaps is the entire point of “Where’s the romance?”. But there is still a lot of emphasis here on having fun and in that respect Tetsu Maeda pulls off the task admirably. The performances are energetic and the actors certainly play up to the absurdness of it all, as does the creative team, who infuse the film with a wonderful palette which keeps things cheery enough ‘til the very end.
What’s more we’re treated to a fantastic presentation. Geneon really has delivered the goods here, which is always great when it’s for such a deserving film.
Last updated: 15/05/2018 11:32:28